BOOKS: Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1999:

Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience
by Susan G. Davis
University of California Press (Berkeley, CA 94720), 1997.
313 pages, paperback; $18.95.

Spectacular Nature author Susan G. Davis spent eight years studying Sea World at San Diego, 1987-1995. ANIMAL PEOPLE spent under eight hours, on May 7, 1999–but it was time enough to confirm her impressions.

An associate professor of communications at the University of California in San Diego, Davis approached her project as an investigation of the interface between social values and corporate-created public space. In so doing, she applied the late media critic Marshall McLuhan’s pronouncement that “the medium is the message” to studying Sea World not only as a vehicle for providing information and entertainment, but also as a statement in itself.

Davis asked first, “What story does this medium tell?” Second, she inquired into the relationship between the Sea World story–an often-changing discussion of how humans interact with nature–and the facts. Of particular value, Davis traced how both the story and the facts have evolved since Sea World opened in 1964.

As Davis describes with a wealth of historical and contextual detail, the Sea World story has been personified since 1965 by “Shamu,” to the extent that if the park had not been founded with a different name and theme, it might be called “Shamu World.” The initial Sea World theme, however, was “Pan-Pacific,” chosen to emphasize San Diego as a gateway to Hawaii, Japan, and Polynesia, and as a destination which in itself offered comparable touristic attractions. Civic leaders and investors hoped Sea World would help San Diego to build an image as a wholesome place for families, countering a history of serving and servicing soldiers and sailors on leave.


Got out of Vietnam
But the Pan-Pacific theme ran into trouble within less than a year. The escalating Vietnam War brought more soldiers and sailors than ever through the local Navy bases and the Marine Corps base at nearby Camp Pendleton. Artificial South Pacific foliage reminded visitors too much of Southeast Asia.

Shamu was originally just the name of one of the first captive orcas. Arriving in 1965 and installed in the tank now
occupied by sea lions and harbor seals, his presence not only proved popular, but also permitted the first of many “re-themings,” as Davis calls the ongoing process of amendments to the Sea World story to make it more popular and profitable. Shamu became a dramatic personna, played by a succession of other orcas, as well as by human narrators who speak for “Shamu” in the accompanying screen show.

Davis traces the evolution of Sea World through three phases, mirroring recent American corporate history. First came the partnership of private investment with public subsidy, a combination characterizing most major development in the
U.S. during the latter half of the 20th century.The second phase, after Sea World was acquired by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1977, was corporate raiding to create quick profits. HBJ bought Sea World along with two other formerly
independent marine theme parks, trying to create an empire which never quite came together; repeatedly downsized staff and investment; bought out and liquidated Marineland of the Pacific in 1987, thereby disposing of Sea World’s closest thematic rival; and finally sold the whole Sea World chain to Anheuser-Busch in 1989, as part of reconfiguring holdings to stave off an attempted hostile takeover by British financier Robert Maxwell.

The third phase, under Anheuser-Busch, is the era of the multi-national conglomerate, within which “theming” creates a marketable culture. Culture, traditionally, is both a process of self-definition and of exclusion–and as such, is too often the rationale for cruelty and exploitation. Multinational conglomerates offer the hope and possibility of undercutting cruel and exploitive national and regional cultures by inducing all the world to buy humane, ecological, and egalitarian values instead. But for this hope to flower, such values must be what the theme-oriented multinationals sell.

M-i-c-k-e-y M-o-u-s-e

The Walt Disney entertainment empire, after which Sea World was loosely modeled, has emphasized positive values from the beginning. “Be kind, be honest, be brave, be hopeful, be true to yourself, and especially be kind to animals” form the moral focus of virtually every Disney production, of any kind. The message may at times be inconsistent, yet much less so than the dissonance within any national or ethnic culture between how one treats “us” versus how one treats “them.”

Sea World, on the other hand, began without an inherent moral theme, and has struggled ever since to convincingly develop one.

“As the reader will have no trouble telling,” Davis writes, “Spectacular Nature has a political reference point. A basic premise of this work is that theme parks and tourist attractions are never mere entertainment and recreation…Selectively interpreting reality to and for their customers, the park’s producers try to discover and respond to what they think their customers want. In the case of Sea World, the reality to be interpreted is named marine nature…The popular environmental politics of the 1980s and early 1990s increasingly forced the theme park’s managers to perceive their customers as ‘caring about’ nature, animals, and the environment, and it encouraged them to align the park’s entertainments the same caring way.”

But the transition from an early emphasis on hula dancers to the decades of Shamu-as-tamed-killer to the present eco theming did not come easily, willingly, or because Sea World management had evident interest in moral leadership.

Walt Disney taught “Be kind to animals” because he believed in the message. His confidence in his ability to sell the public on kindness toward animals was certainly reinforced by the financial success of Snow White, Bambi, Dumbo, and 101 Dalmatians, but challenging sport hunting, circus cruelty, and the fur industry in the 1940s and 1950s were nothing that marketing experts would have encouraged him to do.

As to Sea World, Davis explains, “A series of deaths and serious accidents involving the orcas and their trainers in the late 1980s forced” the park “to adopt a very aggressive strategy of portraying itself as a rational, educational institution …Changes in both dimensions responded to public pressure.”

Today, Davis notes, “Sea World’s managers talk explicitly about their whale shows as a close-to-home, affordably priced nature tourism opportunity; they speak of their entertainments as not only informative but a useful form of conservation action.” But Sea World does not provoke much deep thought about either nature or conservation–at least not on purpose.

“In the Sea World view,” Davis continues, “the major threat to the environment is from careless individuals who litter, or just don’t care. And although Anheuser-Busch presents itself as a solidly pro-conservation corporation, what forms even conservation–a very limited, protective strategy–takes are unclear. Does the biosphere need to be protected from human exploitation for the short or long term? Who is conservation for, and what is it for? Are the world’s natural resources fairly distributed? These matters trouble American public opinion, but Sea World is quiet about them. At the same time, however, displays that stress the research activities of the sponsors imply that particular companies and business in general are prudent stewards…Here the work of Sea World becomes almost circular: the theme park is a way for corporate America to make public its own free market environmental views…Sea World is not so much a substitute for nature,” a notion Davis explores several times from different angles, “as it is an opinion about it, an attempt to convince a broad public that nature is going to be all right. Even when its exhibits say nothing about benevolent corporations, they are literal models of stewardship proposing a version of nature that is at once a reassurance and promise. The dioramas, aquariums, and whole environments provide a model of what nature should be: remote, pure, balanced, and teeming with life,” in manufactured perfection.

Hit the road, jack

Sea World at San Diego recently added videotaped remarks by television personality Jack Hanna to the Shamu show–the same Jack Hanna who as director of the Columbus Zoo, 1978-1992, was ousted from the American Zoo Association for flouting conservation rules, obliging the zoo to make him “director emeritus” parallel to regaining accreditation. This is also the same Jack Hanna who endorsed dove hunting in October 1998, helping to defeat an
initiative effort to reinstate an Ohio ban on shooting doves that had stood (with one brief interruption) for 75 years.

Other examples of questionable corporate sincerity about professed concern for animals and nature are many, despite the strong Sea World record in rehabilitating and releasing stranded marine mammals, including J.J. the grey whale, and literally hundreds of manatees. Some manatees whose injuries from power boats were so severe that they could not be released are exhibited at Sea World San Diego; many others are at Sea World Orlando.

Sea World must be credited with many positive accomplishments, especially in stranding rescue. Yet the dearth of vegetarian food on the San Diego concessionaires’ menus, for instance–in a city and state where vegetarian burgers are standard items–seems calculated to exclude people who care deeply about animals and nature. And the Sea World San Diego animal exhibits, except for the capacious orca tanks, are no better and often not even as good as
those for the same species at much smaller institutions such as the Tacoma-Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, the Vancouver Aquarium, and Marine World.

Right there in San Diego, a visit to the San Diego Zoo or Wild Animal Park would cost most families far less. A paradox of Sea World, as Davis notes in passing, is that while the resident orcas are always called “killer whales,” to emphasize their ability to deal death, the scientific staff are not allowed to exhibit skeletons, lest the public be reminded that the
original Shamu and many others are dead.

An important inaccuracy of the Shamu shows, overlooked by Davis, is the implication that the performing orcas are of the pods who beach themselves deliberately in order to ambush seals and sea lions. Those orcas actually live in the southern hemisphere; those at Sea World are all from fish-eating northern hemisphere pods. Not mentioned is that there are other orca pods who specialize in eating sharks, and still others who may prey chiefly on other whales. Orca
feeding habits are in fact learned behavior, just as much as the tricks that the staff carefully calls “behaviors” to avoid reminding viewers that whether or not anything they are seeing is cruel to the animals (who seem to enjoy performing), it most certainly isn’t nature.


But Davis did pick up the most telling paradox of corporate-created culture: the major criticism thereof may also be
manufactured. “Time-Warner,” Davis explains, “owner of the Six Flags parks, has done well with action/adventure films starring a killer whale named Keiko,” helping “invent a ‘Free Keiko/Free Willy’ rehabilitation campaign that not surprisingly also promotes the film products” while attacking a rival.

Small wonder that spokespersons for Pepsi-Cola, the exclusive Sea World soft drink concessionaire, have incorrectly
intimated in correspondence that Coca-Cola may be behind Steve Hindi’s boycott of Pepsi in protest of Pepsi advertising in Mexican and Spanish bullrings. Cultures have rarely understood or accepted individual dissent from prescribed values. But unlike national and ethnic cultures, which may lethally repress dissent, corporate cultures do
respond–however grudgingly–to slumping sales.

Big as it is, Sea World San Diego reportedly draws just a fraction as many visitors as Disneyland; Sea World Orlando, with 4.9 million visitors in 1998, almost got to a third as many as Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom, which drew 15.6 million.

We suspect Sea World has much retheming yet to do before any theme there but making money holds resonance. The current ambiance is that of the Club Med of roadside petting zoos. At Sea World San Diego, for instance, a visibly obese dolphin haunts the end of a pool shared with many more active dolphins to claim frequent handouts from visitors, who buy fish from a concession stand. The plants in carefully tended ornamental gardens are clearly identified in signs, as part of the permanent theming of “well-tamed nature,” but two turacos caged beside a restroom are not identified at all, as if to say they are not “theme,” not an advertised species, and therefore do not matter.

The Sea World management, however, appears to be moving even more in the “Club Med of roadside zoos” direction. Petting pools, trainer-for-a-day, and swim-with-dolphins programs are to be emphasized at Discovery Cove, a 30-acre Sea World spin-off under construction just south of Sea World Orlando. Admission will be by reservation, at $150-$250 per person per day. Attendance will be limited to 1,200-1,500 visitors daily, or half a million a year.

Competition from Sea World and other upscale marine mammal exhibition venues long since combined with growing concern for animal welfare to close the old feed-a-dolphin roadside pools and lagoons that 30 years ago lined the Florida coast. The Discovery Cove publicity materials, however, hint that they didn’t so much vanish as metamorphize, from mom-and-pop initiative into big business, better able to invest in the eyewash to convince the public that
exploiting captive wildlife is really okay.

Indeed, the conditions for marine mammals at any Sea World facility are now far better than at any of the mom-and-pop dolphin sites, and Sea World pool sizes even make most other major oceanariums look miniscule. But, claiming to set higher standards, Sea World can also expect ongoing criticism for failures. Years ago, no one noticed when a captive marine mammal died. It was easy to call every orca “Shamu” and never be questioned. These days, any orca death is an event–like the May 5 demise from an as-yet-unknown cause of Katerina, age 10, at Sea World San Antonio. Born in Orlando, she was the first death among the 12 Sea World-bred orcas who have reached adulthood.

Said Sea World vice president for training David Force, responding to questions from Tom Bower of the San Antonio
Express-News, “Before Sea World opened, people were indiscriminately killing killer whales and dolphins. Zoological
facilities are providing an educational opportunity, and as a result, people want to protect the environment for these animals. This stems from an understanding on their part that was learned at Sea World.”

So long as Sea World success coincides with success in protecting wild marine mammals, Sea World has a strong self-justification, no matter what the ambiance and how soft the conservation message. As global protection of marine mammals unravels, however, Sea World and other exhibitors must either speak against the killing, or continue to be targeted by frustrated activists as not only a perceived part of the problem, but also the part closest to hand, most vulnerable to protest.

No one realistically expects Sea World to screen the gore of the Japanese and Norwegian whale hunts, nor of the Canadian seal hunt, nor even to show the footage of the Makah spearing a female gray whale just a little older than J.J., which most Americans may already have seen on news broadcasts. Yet instead of mouthing platitudes about the alleged spiritual importance of killer whales to northwestern Native Americans, Jack Hanna could succinctly explain how the Makah kicked the door open to renewed “cultural” whaling worldwide. He could explain how the Makah whale-killing marked another triumph of the blueprint for reviving “sustainable” whaling that Vice President Albert Gore brought to the White House and first demonstrated in 1993-1994, as Gore in effect brokered silence on Norwegian whaling for the successful completion of a $261 million missile sale to Norway. (ANIMAL PEOPLE outlined the Gore deal, role, and strategy at length in our June and July/August 1994 editions, quoting the transcript of a White House meeting between Gore and then-Norwegian prime minister Gro Brundtland, but mass media never did pick up the
story. )
If Hanna and Sea World had adequate sincerity and fortitude on behalf of whales, they could tell the American people just how the hope and promise of 35 years of Shamu exhibitions has been politically betrayed. A few well-chosen sentences, integrated into the existing script, could reach a broader audience than all the advocacy group mailings on marine mammal topics combined.

But Hanna comes from Tennessee too. “Sustainable use” is also part of his philosophy. And Anheuser-Busch didn’t hire him to alarm the public.

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